Keith Brockie, Wildlife Artist


'Return to One Man's Island'

Ever since my first visit to the Isle of May in Sept 1973, the island has held a special place in my heart. During 1983, I spent most of the year on the May working on my second book, 'One Man's Island' which was published back in 1984 to great success along with a film on the BBC series World About Us. On a visit to the May in June 2009, the highlight of which was my discovery and capture of a White's thrush, I began to consider doing a new book on the island. Hence, in mid April 2010, I started the main fieldwork for 'Return to One Man's Island'. My accommodation was again mostly the Low Light, little changed since 1983, managed by the Isle of May Bird Observatory Trust - a basic but comfortable base.

Painting a razorbill and chick on the West Cliffs
The finished painting of the razorbill and chick

The island is paradise for an artist, especially between May and early July when the breeding seabirds are at their most numerous. On leaving the Low Light, eider ducks are literally nesting on the doorstep, screaming herring and lesser black-backed gulls would dive bomb me as I walk past their nests and young. One of the latter woke me up on many occasions at 04.00 hrs pecking at the newly replaced windows, busily removing the fresh putty (and on one occasion a live pollack which I was about to paint from a bucket just outside the door)! Large numbers of puffins sit on rocks all around, wheeling adults with beaks full of fish try to avoid gulls attempting to waylay their hard won catch as they return to their burrows. Cackling fulmars display on the grassy ledges facing the Low Light. The incessant, evocative cries of delicate kittiwakes perched on their guano encrusted cliff nests below. Bottle-green shags with gorgeous emerald eyes and yellow gape, jump around on their large spatulate webbed feet, trying to steal seaweed from their neighbours' nests. The murmuring calls of numerous guillemots and razorbills rise up from the narrow ledges below the lighthouse. Quite an assault on the senses, sight, sound and smell, and all within 100 metres of the Low Light, so much choice - where do I start?

The frontispiece from the book
Puffins braced against a strong wind

Sitting overlooking Bishop's Cove or Cornerstone on the West Cliffs, I scan the serried rows of guillemots on the ledges and the razorbills tucked away in more isolated fissures. A special grouping, an unusual pose, a chick peering out from under a wing or strong shadow will suddenly grab my attention and I quickly focus in with my powerful telescope. The play of light particularly fascinates me, shadows giving more form to a two-dimensional painting. Reflected light, even in shadow, helps tie in the bird with its surrounds. Eyes give much life to a painting, not just a white spot of sunlight, but reflections of the sky and landscape even on an eye in shadow. Textures are important to me as well, downy or adult plumage contrasting with the rock and vegetation all around. The high magnification makes me feel like I am sitting beside my subject which remains calm and relaxed some distance away and often quite unaware of my presence. Oblivious to all around, I concentrate on sketching as much information down before the bird moves too much. I am totally imbued in my subject, if the bird stretches or yawns I find myself subconsciously copying their movement. This is what I am striving for, at one with my subject, doing what I love to do - drawing from life.

Fulmar chick
Juvenile shag

The spring and autumn migration seasons bring another avian dimension to the island. The exciting expectation of discovering a rarity amongst the commoner migrants keeps one constantly alert. The spring was very poor in 2010 with a female red-backed shrike the only semi-rarity recorded. The autumn made up for that in terms of numbers and quality but no real rarities. Sadly I missed a good week in early September with greenish and icterine warbler, wryneck and bluethroat recorded. However I was fortunate to witness two large falls, the first from the 27th to 30th September and the second from the 9th to the 13th October. Huge numbers of thrushes (especially song thrush), warblers, flycatchers (three species), robins and dunnocks formed the bulk of the migrants passing through. Ringing migrants allows me to draw birds such as great grey shrikes in the hand (whilst trying to avoid it taking chunks out of my fingers), a useful aid aligned with field sketches.

Incubating fulmar
Kittiwake with chicks
Peregrine falcon

I had great fun painting some of the crustaceans, exploring their complicated structure with little preconception of what they should look like. A female lobster, heavily berried under her tail, the intricate patterning of a velvet crab and the camouflaged garden on the dog whelk home of a hermit crab. Other subjects ranged from minke whales feeding offshore, including one breaching, to butterflies and moths. I think a childlike enquiring wonder of the natural world is a prerequisite for painting wildlife.

Juvenile peregrine and feral pigeon
Lobster study
Velvet crab
Rabbit studies

Last, but not least, the seals. The May hosts the largest breeding colony of grey seals on the east coast of Britain. Some 2000 pups are born each year mainly between October and November. They are great fun to sketch whether lying crocodilian mostly submerged, lying partly underwater with flipper in the air or sound asleep amongst the rocks with their pups. I love playing with the textures of their pelage, comparing dry furry coats with the sleek wet look.

Small tortoiseshell butterflies
Purple sandpipers
Red-breasted flycatcher

The 176 page hardback book,'Return to One Man's Island', featuring 145 paintings and sketches is published by Birlinn @ 25 RRP and will be available from early October 2012. Signed copies can be ordered direct from myself plus P & P, see contact details. Also visit my Flickr website to view originals from the book which are for sale.

Yellow-browed warbler & goldcrest
Great grey shrike
Incubating shag

Seal cow with wet pup
Seal cow resting
Seal cow in water

Signed copies (dedicated if requested) of the hardback, 176 page book, 30 x 24 cms, are now available direct from myself @ £25,
+ £6 P & P (cardboard book packaging) in UK, £10 P & P to Europe, £10 surface/£19 airmail to USA.